The abnormal and progressive growth of cells in any part of the body is known as cancer. Cancers are named after the part of the body from where they originate. Cancers that occur in the female reproductive system are called gynecological cancers and involve the organs such as the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, peritoneum, cervix, vulva and vagina.
Types of Gynecological Cancers
Uterine cancer: Cancer of the uterus, also known as endometrial cancer, is the most common reproductive cancer. It usually occurs after menopause, though it may also occur during the initial stages of your menopause.
Symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pain in the pelvic region with urination, and during intercourse.
Ovarian cancer: Cancer of the ovaries begins in the cells of the ovaries, such as the epithelial cells, germ cells and sex cord-stromal cells. You are at a greater risk of ovarian cancer if you have BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutations.
Symptoms may include abdominal pain, bloating, swelling, and feeling of fullness. You may also have pain in your back and pelvic area, constipation, need to urinate frequently, and changes in your menstrual pattern.
Peritoneum cancer: Peritoneum is a thin transparent membrane which lines the abdominal cavity, uterus, bladder and rectum. Like ovarian cancer, gene mutations BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 increases the risk of developing this cancer.
Peritoneum cancer often develops in women with ovarian cancer and has the same symptoms, including abdominal discomfort, weight gain or loss, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, frequent urination, feeling full even after a light meal and abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Cervical cancer: Usually found in women between the ages of 40 and 55 years, cancer of the cervix starts as noncancerous abnormalities on the surface of the cervix. These abnormalities, if left untreated, may eventually spread to the normal cells of the cervix leading to cancer.
Until the spread of the cancer, symptoms are usually dormant. Symptoms that manifest later may include increased vaginal discharge, heavy menstrual bleeding, and bleeding after menopause, sexual intercourse, pelvic examination or douching.
Fallopian tube cancer: Fallopian tube cancer or simply tubal cancer originates in the fallopian tubes that act as passages for the eggs to move from your ovaries to your uterus. It is a very rare cancer, which is usually caused by the spread of other cancers (ovarian or endometrium) to the fallopian tubes. Tubal cancer is normally found in women between the age group of 50 and 60, and is more common in Caucasians who have given birth to few or no children. Women with BRCA1 gene mutation are more prone to this type of cancer.
Symptoms often involve abnormal vaginal bleeding after menopause, feeling of pain or pressure in the abdomen, appearance of white or pinkish vaginal discharge, and/or a pelvic mass which is found in most of the patients at the time of diagnosis.
Vulvar cancer: Vulvar cancer develops along your external genital organs, which includes the labia (lips around the vaginal opening), clitoris (a small mass of tissue at the vaginal opening), and the Bartholin's glands (small glands on either side of the vaginal opening which produce mucus). Most of the vulvar cancers are considered as skin cancers as they begin in cells that form the main constituent of the skin, and mostly affect the labia. A vulvar cancer starts off as a noncancerous growth and progresses over many years to become a tumor.
Unlike most other reproductive cancers, vulvar cancer shows symptoms early, facilitating early diagnosis and cure. Some of the common symptoms include vulvar pain, itching (that may last more than a month), lump or mass, bleeding, and/or any change in the shape and texture of any nevus (birthmark) in the vulvar region.
Vaginal cancer: Vaginal cancer is very rare. It includes squamous cell cancer (occurring in the upper part of the vagina, mostly in women between the ages of 50 and 70) and adenocarcinoma (originating in the glandular or secretory cells in women aged between 12 to 30 years).
Some of the common symptoms include bleeding or discharge from the vagina not related to menses, pain or difficulty passing urine, pain in the pelvic area, and pain during intercourse.
Depending on your condition, your doctor may perform any of the following tests in order to identify and confirm your cancer.
- Pelvic examination: During a pelvic examination, the doctor feels your external and internal genitalia for any abnormal growths or changes in size and shape.
- Pap smear: A sample is taken from your cervix and upper vagina and sent to the laboratory to check for abnormal cells.
- Biopsy: A sample of tissue will be obtained from the suspected organ and examined in a laboratory for any abnormalities.
- Ultrasound: An instrument is inserted into your vagina, which emits high-frequency sound waves that reflect off your reproductive organs. A computer receives these waves and forms images of your pelvic organs.
- Blood test: CA-125 is a protein found in higher limits in women with cancer. A blood test is often performed to measure the level of CA-125.
- Computer tomography (CT) scan: Parts of the body are scanned with X-rays and detailed images are viewed on a computer screen.
- Lower gastrointestinal series (Barium enema): X-ray images are obtained of your colon and rectum, after giving you barium enema, which outlines your rectum and colon and helps the doctor identify any abnormal growth.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI is a non-invasive study, in which powerful magnets and radio waves are used to obtain detailed images of your reproductive organs.
The treatment for cancer is most effective when your cancer is diagnosed and treated in the early stages.
- Surgery: Surgery is often performed to remove the cancerous growth or the affected organ. This is often the primary method to treat any type of cancer and prevent spread to adjacent organs.
- Radiation therapy: Localized high-energy rays are used to kill tumor cells and stop them from growing.
Chemotherapy: Drugs are given either intravenously or orally to prevent the spread of cancer. You may receive one medication or a combination of medications at various intervals depending on your condition.